Grassroots boots on the Big Muddy river


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By Steve Schnarr Missouri River Relief is a grassroots, volunteer-based organization based out of Columbia and Kansas City, Mo., dedicated to reconnecting people to the Missouri River through hands-on, on-the-river clean-ups and education. In 2008, we’re proud to be partnering with two major community river clean-ups in the “Valley below the Dams”—the upper reaches of the Lower Missouri River where the “Big Muddy” isn’t so muddy anymore. For starters, we’ve been recruited to put our boats to work in the fifth annual Missouri River Clean-up in Yankton, S.D. on May 17. This highly successful event is also celebrating the 30th anniversary of the National Recreational River, that non-channelized gem of a wild river just below the Gavin’s Point Dam. Our next venture to this region comes just three weeks later when we will be partnering on our first river clean-up in the tri-state Siouxland area on Saturday, June 7. Unlike where we come from, Sioux City folks use the river a lot! The response we’ve gotten from locals has been amazing, and they are having no problem turning this into their event—always our goal. But it takes volunteers like you to make it work! Come join us for an adventure on the Missouri River—leaving it a better place at the end of the day. Find more information at our web site,

An idea on the riverside

For most of us that live along a river, our relationship to it begins in one special place. We have a favorite sandbar, fishing spot or swimming hole that means “the river” to us— that special place where we scramble down through the briars, vines and willows to watch the sunset. The place we take friends when they come visit. But as we perch on that riverbank, our irrepressible human wondering begins to speculate on what’s downstream, what’s upstream. Where did that monstrous log floating by first tumble into the river? If I hopped on that log for a ride, where would I end up? What places would I see? Who shares this river with me? Where do all these plastic bottles and tires floating by come from? Rivers are the connecting tissue of nations. Their waters are the bloodstream that ignores political boundaries and ties us together. Our big rivers—the Missouri, the Mississippi, the Ohio—are almost impossible to ponder. They drain such large areas, touch so many cities, towns and villages, relentlessly rush by with such vast quantities of water, that our sense of scale can’t capture it all. If you’re the sort of person that knows all is not well with your river, you can’t help but figure out a way to make things better. The obvious place to start is right where you live. That’s how most river organizations begin, those thousands of river stewards across the land that make it their job to take care of that piece of river they call home. And that’s how Missouri River Relief got started on the Providence Bend of the Missouri River, right in the center of the state named after the river. But it really started with an idea. Chad Pregracke had that idea, way over on the Mississippi. He believed that people could start to solve a river’s problems if they’d actually get out there and do stuff. Clean up decades of trash, plant trees, organize citizens. Luckily, countless others on countless other rivers have had that same idea and it flows like water across the land. Once the seed of that idea found fertile ground in the hearts of a bunch of river rats in central Missouri, a new idea was born. Let’s bring Chad up the Missouri River to clean up our home stretch of river! In 2001, they raised some money and hired him to bring his trash barge and crew up the Big Muddy to River Mile 169. River rats in these parts love our Missouri River, but we noticed that it seemed to be ignored by the general public that lived around it. We had the belief that once you get people out on it, and work hard to make it more beautiful, that they would all consider it their river. While no one deep down in their hearts wanted to turn on a bunch of Jet Skiers to their “best kept secret,” this group of visionaries understood that the only way people will treat the river right is if they cherish it. For that you need to get your boots muddy!

A flood of momentum

But what started as a one-day clean-up soon became its own movement and they called it Missouri River Relief. It was a bunch of river rats, fishermen, outdoors folks, government workers, scientists and the like. After you clean up the backyard, you start to wonder about all the trash upstream and downstream. As the years rolled by, Missouri River Relief started doing clean-ups and education events up and down the river—we just couldn’t stay in one place. Ahead of the Lewis and Clark commemoration in 2004, we hit one river town a week, hosting clean-ups, heading upstream from the Confluence to St. Joseph. Soon Vicki Richmond (one of the most experienced river-clean-up organizers in the state) hopped on board to expand our reach even further, up to Omaha, Neb. Volunteers took our growing fleet of boats on the river in 2006 to map the trash along 754 miles of the Lower Missouri River, to make this invisible, non-point-source pollution problem visible. More and more people were asking us to help at their clean-ups and, in 2007, we found ourselves bumping the bows of our boats against the Gavin’s Point Dam in Yankton, S.D.

A clean-up addiction

Who are these people? A handful of full- and part-time staff passionate about the Missouri River keeps the gears churning. Then there’s the Crew—a bunch of volunteers that love driving boats, camping on sandbars and turning people on to the Missouri River. People who love seeing trash disappear from the river by the ton. River people who love meeting other river people. Some of these folks are motorcycle mechanics and former river pilots who bring their irreplaceable skills to maintaining the Missouri River Relief fleet of boats and vehicles. Others love to cook good food for ravenous river cleaners. Others train in boat piloting and safety and love to share their river knowledge with others. The MRR Crew, who really make this thing work, are dozens of amazing, creative and fun-loving folks that care about the river. To make this work, it also takes the curious, who come to the Missouri River for their first time to help clean it up. It takes the dedicated river lover, the fishermen and boaters who see a great opportunity to do some good on their river. It’s the myriad other stream and river organizations that bring their expertise and passion for one day to the riverside. It also involves river biologists and agents that bring their work boats on weekends to shuttle volunteers and trash. It’s the folks working in state and federal offices improving water quality that love to come out and put some sweat into their efforts. It’s the government agencies, corporations and individuals that put their dollars behind making it run. This is a project that continues to grow and inspire throughout the Lower Missouri River Valley. Our goal is that you join in and share the experience. That the next time you’re out on the Big Muddy, you come back with a bag of trash. That people realize that their drinking water comes from this massive river, and we had better take care of it. That it has unlimited promise as a haven for fish and wildlife. That we all understand that we live up- and downstream, that we share this river. It belongs to all of us at the same time it belongs to none of us. We all use the heck out of this river—let’s give it back some love!

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